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15 World War II veterans from Charlotte region to receive France’s highest military honor

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DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
King Kenny, 89, with some of his medals, which include the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star and Distinguished Unit Citation. Kenny, of Harrisburg, is one of 15 area vets to get the French Legion of Honor on Veterans Day.

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    William Greenlee, Marion. Lieutenant colonel (retired) 22nd Infantry, 4th Division. Fought in Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes and the Rhineland. Awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star medal.

    Walter Dickens, Monroe. Technical sergeant, medical detachment, 116th Infantry. Mission was to treat wounded soldiers and get them off the beach to safer areas. Participated in campaigns in Northern France, the Rhineland and Central Europe.

    James B. Taylor, Shelby. Technical sergeant, Headquarters Company, 83rd Infantry Division. Mission was to interpret aerial photographs of enemy troop placements and movements. This sometimes involved crossing into enemy territory. Decorated with Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars.

    Walter Barrett, Winston-Salem. Staff Sgt. 508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Mission was to capture or destroy major bridges, causeways, railroads, etc. leading to the beaches of Normandy. Participated in the Holland invasion, followed by campaigns in the Rhineland and Central Europe.

    Ernest Wallace, Waxhaw. Sergeant, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Participated in the Normandy invasion and the fighting at Ste-Mere Eglise, where he rescued French families and protected their homes. Decorated with the Purple Heart.

    William Verba, Matthews. Corporal, 275th Infantry Regiment, 70th Division. Acting squad leader of rifle squad. Made a prisoner of war and liberated after two weeks.

    John Balazic, Waxhaw. Technician 5th grade, Headquarters Company, 4th Armored Division. Truck driver and personal Jeep driver for the Battalion commander. Participated in Normandy invasion and active in combat operations in Northern Europe, the Ardennes, Central Europe and the Rhineland.

    Alfred Hall, Lewisville. Technician 5th grade, 36th Engineer Combat Battalion. Fought in several battles in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia before being sent to Italy, where he participated in operation Shingle near Anzio. From there, he moved to Southern France and then toward Normandy, the Vosges Mountains and the Ardennes.

    Frank Bennett, Arden. Private First Class, Company C, 208th Engineer Combat Battalion. Participated in Normandy Invasion at Utah Beach, assisted in liberation of Saint-Lo and participated in the Paris Liberation Day Parade on Aug. 25, 1944.

    Lewis Spitzer, Charlotte. Private First Class, 44th Signal Company, 44th Infantry Division. Radio operator during various campaigns across Europe: Northern France, the Vosges Mountains, Alsace and the Rhineland. Awarded the European Middle Eastern Medal with three Battle Stars.

    James Kivett, Greensboro. Seaman First Class, USS LCI 502. Helped with the D-Day Invasion of Normandy and patrolled the Normandy coast aboard the USS LCI L 502.

    Robert Beroth, Clemmons. Coxswain V-6, LST 282. Helped deliver the 4th Division to Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion. During Operation Dragoon on Aug. 15, 1944, the LST-282 was bombed by enemy planes.



They were young U.S. soldiers at war and fighting in France.

From the Normandy beaches and hedgerow country to snow-covered mountains, they became battle-hardened. But along the way, the French people let the soldiers know their sacrifices were appreciated.

Nearly 70 years later, 15 World War II veterans from around the Charlotte region are about to receive another expression of gratitude for their service.

On Monday, the men will be honored with France’s highest military award, the Legion of Honor. Denis Barbet, Consul General of France to the Southeast United States, will present the awards in a ceremony at Byron’s South End in Charlotte.

“We cannot praise these men enough for all they have done during World War II, and it is only befitting that we honor them on Veterans Day,” Barbet said.

“Organizing a decoration ceremony of the French Legion of Honor on Nov. 11 has a very special meaning. In this way, we solemnly pay tribute to all French and American soldiers who fought side by side – from the trenches of Champagne and Lorraine during World War II to the beaches of Normandy. We, the French, we will never forget what they did to restore our freedom.”

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes exceptional service to France.

During Monday’s ceremony, veteran King Kenny, 89, of Harrisburg will think of fellow soldiers who didn’t come home and of a bitter battle near the village of Mortain. It was the first large-scale German counteroffensive after the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944, and he was a 21-year-old sergeant with a 30th Infantry Division reconnaissance company.

Although outnumbered, the division stood its ground.

Looking back, Kenny remembers the low clouds, rain and a loud booming.

“You couldn’t tell if it was thunder or artillery,” he said.

Most of all, he remembers going up against the elite German 1st SS Panzer Division.

“They were very tough,” Kenny said. “They threw the book at us, and we threw the book at them. Casualties were severe.”

For its courage and heroism, the division won a Presidential Citation.

‘Honored and humbled’

Kenny fought in other battles, including Saint-Lo and the Ardennes, and earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.

His time in France was tough, but he remembers French people waving to U.S. troops from the roadsides, throwing flowers, offering hugs.

One night, his unit spent the night in a barn, and local residents brought over an accordion. Kenny danced with a woman while she held a handkerchief around his neck.

“The French people were very good to us,” he said.

On Monday, he’ll also think of them.

“It’s gratifying that the French people and consul are recognizing us,” Kenny said. “I’m very honored and humbled.”

When Hugh Hunt, 91, of the Cleveland County town of Casar, receives the Legion of Honor, his thoughts will go back to July 10, 1944, when he caught sight of Omaha Beach for the first time.

A medic with the 30th Infantry Division, he spotted one casualty and a few dead cows on what he called a “bombed up” beach.

For 30 days, Hunt followed the infantry into battle. Then, as he and other medics attended to three wounded men behind a hedgerow, German soldiers suddenly appeared and captured him. Hunt spent 10 months in POW camps in France and Germany.

The wartime landscape is bleak in his memory.

But in 2003, Hunt revisited France with his wife and son. He took another look at Omaha Beach and other locales.

“It’s a really beautiful place,” he said. “And the people were all friendly.”

A retired textile employee and farmer, Hunt seldom speaks about his World War II experiences. Commenting on the Legion of Honor award he said, “It’s nice. I appreciate it.”

Roots in France

Another Legion of Honor recipient, Jean Varda, 98, of Weddington, landed on Utah Beach 29 days after the invasion and raced across France with Co. A, 802 Tank Destroyer Battalion.

En route, people waved, broke out champagne, and “the French Resistance was a big help,” said Varda, who was a captain.

He fought in campaigns in Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe. Varda was awarded the Silver Star for voluntarily advancing with two enlisted men to stop enemy fire and take out an enemy position.

Monday’s ceremony will have special meaning for Varda because his roots are in France. Around 1910, his parents left the country and settled in New York City.

He wishes they could be there to see him receive the Legion of Honor for his role in liberating France.

“This is for them,” Varda said.

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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